Who Owns the Future – Jaron Lanier

I recently finished reading Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future. Lanier is a Silicon Valley computer scientist who has been present since the early days of the computer industry’s ascent. He first became famous as a pioneer of virtual reality, and has a parallel career as a composer and owns one of the biggest collections of obscure musical instruments in the word (a pastime which endears him greatly to me).

His basic thesis in this book is that technological change is hollowing out pretty much all of our economy, weakening our businesses and enterprises, terminally so in many cases. Think of the music industry – the short term fix of free music is destroying the ability of many of make a living and will lead to less music being made and circulated. The cultural buzz around music obscures this, but not only is it harder for an artist to make money, but many of institutions and careers that supported the industry are dead or vastly reduced in scale – record shops and labels, artist management etc. – and they are not being replaced. Lanier predicts whole swathes of middle class careers will go the way of the Dodo – journalism and the photographic industry are just two of the examples he cites, with more to come. It’s possible that currently secure careers like teaching (my own profession) or medicine will become increasingly automated.  The book  gives a lot of detail about the power currently being accrued by powerful computer companies who dominate the new economic spaces which have opened up, and concentrate the wealth generated in the hands of a few individuals. He cites Instagram as having effectively replaced the thousands of jobs created by Kodak, and doing this with a mere 13 employees when it was bought out by Google. Lanier calls these companies  “Siren Servers” as they are impossible to resist – and posits a broad blueprint for a solution, the fine print to be negotiated, this being small remunerations for the sharing of information.

Something I found fascinating about the book wasn’t just his thesis, it’s the hints of the psychedelic and spiritual heritage of Silicon Valley.  The book is punctuated with a series of “interludes” – short collections of anecdotes or thought pieces which explore a particular theme outside the context of the book’s main argument. In the sixth interlude entitled “The Pocket Protector in the Saffron Robe” – Steve Jobs being the titular figure here  –  Lanier writes about the how spiritual and new age beliefs and practices were rife in the computing world of the time: “The prevalence of the new Age was a heavy burden to bear for skeptics in Palo Alto in the 1980s… Everyone was attending preachy workshops where a narrative about a mystical power to self-empowerment was reinforced”. Lanier mentions that how many of Silicon Valley’s top powerbrokers, programmers, scientists and politicians attended Werner Erhad’s est workshops, stating that attendance at est workshops was as ubiquitous as a Facebook profile is now. The history and roots of est, and its role in the shift from the 60s focus on  external, political change to interior personal change, is documented in Adam Curtis’s documentary The Century of the Self.  It’s strange to think that the architects of the computing system I am typing on (and that which you are reading on) may well have been rolling around screaming cathartically in a Californian sweat lodge somewhere, 30 years ago. I’d go as far as to say that this activity might pack more punch that your average status update.

In the 80s, Lanier worked for the Global Business Network, an influential advisory body in Silicon Valley, co-founded by Stewart Brand. He was given the job title of a “Remarkable Person”, which in actuality was a kind of consultant and speaker. It turns out the job title descended from GJ Gurdjieff’s book “Meetings with Remarkable Men”, with a concession to feminism. Gurdjieff was a notorious and hugely influential “rascal guru” type figure, and naming job roles after a book of his speaks volumes about the influences at play. Lanier mentions GBN classifiying customers according to Gurdjeiff’s ennegram (an esoteric spiritual diagram).

The recent revivial of interest in Californian new age music (the latest frontier of crate digging) makes these insights seem very timely.

Moreover, Lanier also give details of the conceits of power that come with riding these waves. Apparently many young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs  stated their intentions were to “dent reality”. When one looks at the successes of Jobs and Bill Gates, you have to conclude that they succeeded. Apparently this level of hubris is still commonplace – a start-up isn’t just a way to make an income, it’s a way to change the world, to reshape it in your image. He states that “the feeling of being a techie on the verge of escaping limits is ecstatic, manic and irresistable”.  The overcoming of limits flows into the crazy sci-fi sciences associated with computing – life extension and the uploading of consciousness, the moment of Silcon bliss known as The Singulairy. Lanier is good at evoking this fevered tech transcendence and how it’s connection to current enterprises – “the amazing lift that you get from starting a networked busiess that can become huge… is just a fore-echo of something far more profund”.  He drolly notes that perhaps his contemporaries don’t really believe their own hype here – for all the talk of immortality, “hacking the genome” and so on, they’ve all settled down and had kids.

Lanier’s solutions – micro payments for the sharing of information – have their roots in the work of early computer scientists like Ted Nelson, first to theorise on the power of networked computers.  He was so early that he couldn’t even explain these ideas graphically, because computer graphics didn’t exist! Nelson’s big idea was that links would be two way, enabling every link and usage of a piece of information to be tracked and re-tracked.  If this idea doesn’t seem radical to you, consider that it’d wipe out anonymous spam senders in a heartbeat and that Google’s success is built entirely on delivering correct links, including those we’ve lost and forgotten about.

Computing certainly seems to be a very individual pursuit. Early computers allowed you a degree of freedom and manipulatie to hack that which you were using, which arguably led to an explosion of creativity. This computing language didn’t emerge from nowhere – it seems that some of this freedom was built in, even if the truly radical ideas of some early computer pioneers were only half born. Narratives of recent history tend to present the idealism of 60s being overcome by the radicalism of the New Right, the ascent of Thatcher and Reagan in the 70s, ushering in the neo-liberal era in which we are now living. Books like this show that maybe the 60s didn’t just die, they went on to shape reality in a way that we don’t see.

More on the hidden history of computing can be found in John Makoff’s book What the Dormouse Said. Here’s a review of the book by Lanier, and an interview with Makoff himself.



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